Back Page Football’s Ger McCarthy reviews the draw for the opening stages of this season’s Champions League which sees Man City marooned in a group of death, Arsenal and Man United enjoying more straightforward assignments and defending champions Chelsea expected to progress.
Roberto Di Matteo
Chelsea’s quest to become the first club to win the Champions League in successive seasons since a marvellous AC Milan side triumphed in 1989 and 1990 will require safe passage from a tricky Group E. It’s barely three months since Roberto Di Matteo guided the Londoners to their glorious triumph at the expense of Bayern Munich on penalties but a £100 million spending spree on top class talent coupled with the return to form of Fernando Torres suggests Di Matteo can look forward to another extended European run this term.
Group: Top seeds in Group E against Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Nordsjaelland.
Qualification prospects: Good. The defending champions face tricky away trips to Donetsk and Turin but possess enough attacking quality and experience to negotiate Group E and qualify for the last sixteen of the competition.
Alex Ferguson will not need to remind his Manchester United squad of the dangers of taking a perceived easy Champions League group for granted following last year’s failure to qualify from the opening phase. The signing of Robin van Persie has bolstered United’s attacking options while the return of a fully fit Wayne Rooney will herald the most potent strike force on the continent by the time the knockout stages comes around. An away trip to Turkey will elicit memories of ‘Welcome to Hell’ banners and Eric Cantona lashing out at Turkish police but United will have learnt from last season’s mistakes and should make it through.
Group: Top seeds in Group H and taking on Braga, Galatasaray and FC Cluj for a place in the second round.
Qualification prospects: Excellent. Alex Ferguson will be delighted to have avoided potential banana skins such as Juventus, PSG, Borussia Dortmund and Montpellier. The Old Trafford club should sail through this group if they play to their full potential.
Arsene Wenger received some good news for a change on Thursday afternoon following the recent public spat with want away international Theo Walcott and his side having failed to find the net in either of Arsenal’s two Premier League fixtures. The draw for the Champions League has been kind, pitting the North London club against Schalke, Olympiakos and Montpellier. A negotiable group, the prospect of finishing top and avoiding the likes of Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St. Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev gives the Gunners every chance of making the next phase.
Group: Top seeds in Group B with Schalke, Olympiakos and Montpellier the other participants.
Qualification prospects: Excellent. On paper at least, the Gunners look odds-on to make it out of their group and if results go their way should finish top of the table. Short away trips will also please Arsene Wenger with Arsenal having avoided long haul flights to Russia and Ukraine.
The surprise winners of last season’s Danish Superliga are taking part in their first ever Champions League campaign and not surprisingly have assumed the mantle of rank outsiders. Based in Farum, in the suburbs of Copenhagen, the club nicknamed the ‘White Tigers’ was formed in 1991 following the amalgamation of Farum Idræts Klub and Stavnsholt Boldklub.
Renamed as FC Nordsjaelland in 2003 (following off-field financial issues) the club earned its first major successes by lifting the Danish Cup in 2010 and 2011 before last season’s Danish Superliga triumph resulted in 5 of Nordsjaelland’s players receiving call ups to the Danish international squad. Watch out for Michael Laudrup’s son Andreas who is a regular in the Nordsjaelland side.
Group: Placed in Group E alongside Chelsea, Shakhtar and Juventus.
Qualification prospects: Zero. The Danes will be perceived as the whipping boys of Group E but should prove sticky opponents in Copenhagen and might even pull off a shock result or two.
A less than stellar start to the defence of their Premier League crown has been compounded by a dreadful draw in the opening phase of the Champions League. Manchester City will have to get the better of the Spanish, Dutch and German Champions to secure a second round berth. Roberto Mancini has spent much of the past week bemoaning the lack of transfer activity at the Etihad Stadium and pointed the finger of blame squarely at Brian Marwood. Thursday’s tough Champions League draw will only intensify Mancini’s demand for fresh talent and City certainly need to bolster their squad to avoid a second consecutive European campaign ending at the opening stage.
Group: Drawn in Group D as second seeds behind Real Madrid along with Ajax and Borussia Dortmund to make up the 2013 Champions League’s ‘group of death’.
Qualification prospects: 50/50. The home and away ties against Madrid will be fascinating viewing as will Mancini and Mourinho’s inevitable clashes on the sideline. City’s progress will boil down to their results against Ajax and Dortmund.
Neil Lennon described Celtic’s qualification for the group stages of this season’s Champions League as his greatest achievement in club management. The Scottish Champions are faced with the daunting prospect of home and away ties against Barcelona as well as a long trip to Moscow to face an in-form Spartak. Celtic fans will no doubt create a raucous atmosphere for all three home fixtures but the step up in class should prove too much for the Scots and an early exit beckons.
Group: Fourth seeds in Group G with the challenge of taking on Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.
Qualification prospects: Slim. Qualification for the group stages is an achievement in itself for Neil Lennon’s side whose fans will relish the two fixtures against Messi and co. Bottom line is that the SPL club don’t possess the requisite quality to obtain the necessary results away from home. Europa League qualification is not beyond them though.
Follow Ger on Twitter: @germccarthy74